Production 512: Beginner’s Guide to Reverb - Part 2

Last month I wrote a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Reverb’, but realized, once it was posted, that I really didn’t give you much in the way of practical application. So THIS month I’m gonna try to remedy that with some tips and tricks. The upshot of my advice last time was, “just play with it until it sounds right.” Not my best effort. This one will hopefully make all that better.

Prod512 Logo 400pxAfter it was published last month, Jay Rose posted:

"Less is more" indeed!

Reverb does not make a voice bigger. It makes it farther away. Generally, big things are farther away... but (in a normal room) a giant monster in-your-face will have less reverb than an announcer ten feet away! If you want an intimate sound, dial the reverb down or totally out. Let the listener's office/bedroom/car acoustics provide the only reverb. It'll sound more like the talent is talking directly to the individual listener. From a film-mixing point of view (I left radio about 15 years ago), voice reverb is used primarily to make studio replacements match location dialog. Voice-overs, unless they're the character talking from their dialog world, have little or no reverb.

And Jay was 100% right. Most of the ‘bad’ reverb I talked about last time was reverb being used inappropriately.

Reverb should only has two distinctly different uses: 1) To put something in an environment that makes it sound more realistic, and 2) To put something in an environment that makes it sound more realistic. Full stop. I know, I sound like I’m writing for the Department of Redundancy Department, but my point is simple. The ONLY reason you should ever use reverb is to put something in an environment that makes it sound more realistic. Am I being clear? OK, there ARE special uses, but I’ll get to those in a minute.

For a lotta years, my bread and butter was taking pop music and making it sound like it was being played in a big venue. Add some really good crowd effects and you feel like you’re sitting in Madison Square Garden or Hammerstein Ballroom at a concert. Reverb is key.

Most people’s experience at concerts is NOT from the front row, so you need to pay attention to the Distance setting. At MSG, most people are sitting 30 to 50 rows back. If you want your listener to feel like they’re at a concert, you make sure the distance is about 80 meters. If the prizes you’re giving away are front row seats, once you say that’s what the tickets are, draw the contrast by switching the distance to 3 meters. At that distance, reverb will almost disappear. It should be a fairly dramatic difference.

If you ever watch a news channel, say CNN or FOX, you know they often interview members of Congress remotely from the Capitol Rotunda. The mic on the Senator or Congress member is actually ON their body. Their voice should have next to NO reverb, but you can hear other people talking in the background as they walk past in the rotunda, with tons of natural reverb. (It is a VERY noisy place that way.) This proves the point Jay made about reverb tending to make things sound farther away.

Think about reverb this way: Have you ever seen a great photo of someone that is super fine-focused, so much so that you can even see the whisker a guy missed when he shaved that morning, but the background is blurred out? Done properly, reverb does the same thing…aurally. It blurs out the background. If you have a few minutes and can easily get outside, go stand on a street corner, close your eyes and listen carefully. Depending on the environment, you will notice that, at first it seems like there is no reverb going on. Then you will notice that the sounds of passing cars and trucks are reflecting off the sides of buildings. The further away they are, the more you will hear it. Someone walking by you will have almost no reverberation at all because what little there might be is dominated by the direct sound you get from their footsteps or conversations. The construction going on a couple blocks down will have plenty of reverb. Hammers banging, electric saws buzzing and cement mixers churning all come to you in a sea of reverb as those sounds bounce off the buildings along the avenue. If you can create that sound, even for an open air environment, it is this kind of detail that makes your reverb work FOR you and not against.

Come Halloween production-time this Fall, you might feel the need to produce a spot featuring someone speaking from a very large cavern, with bats flying about and ghosts moaning. Your spot can use reverb to great effect if you have the voice walking closer and closer. It would start with a lot of reverb, but as they walk, you hear much more of their voice directly, so the reverb on their voice will diminish with each step, never quite going away, BUT…the reverb on everything else remains constant. You can control most of this with the Distance setting. The point here being that you want the reverb to sound natural. Never let it dominate the sound. That’s just goofy.

This particular scenario brings to mind another piece of advice. If you want the reverb to at least seem realistic, you need to make sure everything is reverberating in the same imaginary room. Say you’re having someone walk through a vault of music. It’s a very BIG vault because there is so much music. You should hear footsteps and the VO in the same space. Instead of popping a reverb plug-in on the footstep track and another on the voice track, just use one sub-master and buss the sound from both tracks. You won’t have to copy and paste settings and can, in fact, make subtle adjustments to the room sound in one place. If the voice needs a little more presence, lower the gain on the send and possibly raise the gain on the VO track. With those adjustments, your imaginary ‘vault’ never changes dimensions, even when the proximity of the voice track does.

I’m not sure what the occasion would be to feature someone in a bathroom, but the same rule applies. Your plug-in should have plenty of early reflections and a fairly quick amount of decay to make it sound like the room is covered in tile. Once you set it up on the sub-master, you can then channel the VO and any sound effects like running water or a toilet flushing to the reverb to insure the room size and reflectivity remains the same, no matter what happens in the room. (This is where I suppose I could give advice about the advisability of using a toilet flush, but hey…if you need it, you need it.)

Last month I wrote about most plug-ins having a lot of presets. I just took a peek at the Renaissance Reverb by Waves™ to get an idea of how many presets there are in that one, and I was surprised by how many there were. Under rooms there are nearly 20, from Large Convention Space to Bathroom (guest) and Empty garage, and that’s just one heading. Add in Halls, Chambers and Churches and the number keeps growing. There are also quite a few ‘special’ settings like Reso-Verb, Non-linear, Gates and Echo Verb. Most of these are only useful when you’re looking for something to use on slams, bangs and other impactful sounds, but a few make pretty neat effects all by themselves. My point here being that there are dozens and dozens of pre-sets you can start with and grow your reverb-vocabulary. Try a couple out and keep an ear out for something you can use for a special occasion. The last bunch would all come under the heading of “special uses.”

One of my favorites is something I call “fore-shadowing.” Take a piece of VO, preferably something you really want to highlight (your USP should come into play here). Make a copy of that word and Reverse it. Now, add some reverb directly to that file and allow it to decay away for a couple of seconds. Print the reverb directly on the copy of the file and then Reverse it again. On your timeline, match the back end of your copy with the original so the actual words line up. The reverb you added should now stretch out in front of the original file. Cut off the word that was in the original copy, leaving only the reverb portion in front of the original track file and hit play.

Knowing that I was writing on this particular topic, I produced this week’s promo for Most Requested Live using this very effect so you can hear what it sounds like. It’s posted here on the Sound Stage. The above description is a pretty close step-by-step instruction of how I did that. Listen at the end for the ‘fore-shadowed’ repeat of Khalid’s name. It’s not the most energetic promo I’ve ever produced, but then consider the topic at hand.

Let me suggest that the next time you find yourself with a little downtime, which has always happened in the summer for me, just pull out a couple of reverb plug-ins and experiment a little. If you hear something that sounds really interesting, catalog what you did and let it ferment in your brain awhile. The next time you’re stuck for a way to add some pizzazz to a spot or promo, you’ll have it ready. Just remember…a little goes a LONG way. Don’t let it take over your piece, just hang it like a pretty ornament on your Christmas tree and call it good.

Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.

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